First Play: Watch_Dogs

We first got our paws on Watch_Dogs very briefly last year, but now we’ve had a full four-and-a-half-hour preview of a much more finished build, and we’re impressed.

Let’s start with a few pointers: in case you haven’t read our preview, Watch_Dogs is an open-world game in the GTA/Saints Row mould, but with a story that sets it apart. You play Aiden Pearce, a hacker vigilante who goes to labra-war against a sinister group of cyber-terrierists. He’s equipped with an impressive boxer tricks, including a city-wide operating system (CtOS) that lets him hack everything from forklift trucks to steam pipes, but he’s up against some mastiff competition.

READ MORE: Watch_Dogs preview

beagle eyed

The game starts off indoors, and a short mission leads you outside, so you're sat down and comfortable with the controls before you get your first look at Chicago - a trick that's at least as old as The Wizard of Oz, and still highly effective. Chicago looks fantastic on the PS4 build we played: dirty, windy, atmospheric and enormous. The painstaking detail in which it’s been rendered makes it feel endlessly explorable, and it’s particularly lovely in the rain. You can’t beat good rain in a game, especially if you’re zooming through it on a motorbike.

The CtOS data you can overlay on your vision is unobtrusive, and can be quickly toggled on and off to allow you to scan your fellow citizens. Unless they’re part of the plot, the people around you are procedurally generated, and the short bios that pop up about each of them allow you to make snap decisions about whether to leave them be (if they’re, say, a nurse), or (if they’re, say, a hedge fund manager) to hack their bank account, steal their car, drive their car into a lamp post and then blow it up in front of them. As in any game featuring large numbers of NPCs, you’re going to hear the same lines of dialogue repeated by different people all around the city.

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corgi of destruction

At one point in the story, we used Aiden’s considerable talents to lay a trap for some enemies. After a couple of minutes sowing the seeds of explosive disaster, it was time to find a hiding place and then use CtOS to trigger remote bombs and activate machinery, sending the confused enemy running into hiding places that were also, thanks to forward planning, full of bombs.

You’ll have plenty of opportunities to engage the enemy in the traditional way, too, but shoot-outs against more than a few enemies are difficult to survive, so the game is constantly pushing you towards its more interesting aspects - laying traps, hacking, sneaking and high-speed getaways - to get you through missions. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t just run into a situation and start brapping people with an assault rifle, if that’s the way you want to play it.

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mirror, signal, miniature schnauzer

Driving ranges from realistic to cartoony, depending on what motor you’ve got. High-end sports cars are tricky, flicky, spintrixes, but the motorbikes are unexpectedly sturdy; we took a couple of knocks that would have your leg right off in real life, and we didn’t even fall over. Maybe we’re just really good at motorbikes. Whatever you’re driving, the chases are fantastic. Whether you’re hunting an enemy or being chased by the po-po, having the CtOS on your side adds an extra element. Pursuit becomes all about leading your opponent into a trap where you can raise some bollards, change the traffic lights or blow up a steam valve, snaring them in a pile-up so you can either start shooting at them or speed off into the night. Unless they’ve got a helicopter, that is, in which case best practice is to either hide under a bridge, or just keep driving until you explode.

More after the break...

wired for hound

Jumping into a car and landing in the previous occupant’s choice of radio station is an important scene-setting element in any game in which you get to steal cars. Obviously there’s a variety of genres and not all of it will be to your taste, but what matters is that the music fits the scene, and this soundtrack comes mostly from Chicago-based musicians. Within the first hour of driving around the city we’d had several of those nice moments when the song perfectly matches the situation.

insane in the pomeranian

We knew Watch_Dogs was going to be compelling, exciting and dark, but we weren’t prepared for it to have a crazy side. When you fancy a break from the real-world story you can buy a ‘digital trip’ from a ‘dealer’ on the street. Stick said cyberdrug in your ear and the real world fades away and is replaced by a hallucinatory mini-game: in one, you drive a flaming hot rod through a burning landscape, racking up points for the number of flame-headed zombies you mow down. In another, you stamp around Chicago in a huge mechanical spider, stamping on police cars and blowing things up with a Gatling gun. After a couple of hours of serious story, it’s just what you need, and when your bloodthirst is slaked, you go back to the normal game. It’s nice to have the option of enjoying some whacky stuff, but it’s also an excellent idea to keep it separate from the main game.

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You’re dalmatian’ me crazy

The portion of the story we played didn’t contain any big surprises. There might be some fascinating developments waiting further along in the story, but Aiden Pearce is brewed to the same tortured-vigilante recipe as Batman, The Punisher, Max Payne and a hundred others: his nearest and dearest are attacked, which makes him angry, and depressed, but also frees him up to go out and take bloody revenge on the Bad Guys. So far, so formulaic, but the script and the voice-acting are blockbuster-quality, and bear in mind we only played through a couple of sections of the plot.

maximum dachsund satisfaction

The overall impression we get from Watch_Dogs is that like the best open-worlders, it offers considerable playing time for your money. It's filled with exciting mini-games and multiplayer possibilities, from street racing to hacking your friends to taking control of the police forces (via the tablet app) and challenging them to escape. You can even play chess in it, if you like. It’s Assassin’s Creed meets Deus Ex with a touch of GTA and a smattering of Saints Row. If you like even one of those games, you’re going to have a great time in Watch_Dogs.

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